The best, the worst, and the unsung backcountry sites of Glacier NP

R0023655Glens Head, a mere B grade site.

If you want to backpack in Glacier National Park you must pay, both in dollars ($7 per person, per night adds up) and in logistical effort.  The park generally and the backcountry in particular has gotten noticeably more crowded in the past 8 years in which we’ve been regular visitors, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down.  Research into the permit process well in advance of your trip is mandatory.

With notable exceptions (to be discussed in a later post) backcountry camping in Glacier requires staying in a designated site. These sites have between 2 and 7 slots, each of which is meant to hold up to two tents or four people, whichever comes first.  Each site also features a toilet, of varying type, as well as a food storage device, which conveniently obviates the need to carry a bear can or execute a potentially difficult food hang.  These sites serve as a quota system, limiting the number of people in specific areas of the backcountry.  They also concentrate impact; the valleys in Glacier are steep, and the vegetation thick, minimizing the number of places naturally suited to low impact camping.  The backcountry is better for them, but if you backpack in Glacier you will likely be camping with others, and you will certainly be sleeping on and staking your tent to a very hard dirt pad.  Be prepared.

Some of the backcountry sites in Glacier are sublime.  Some are terrible.  A few are considerably better than their reputations would suggest.  What follows are my picks for all three categories, with a bit of exposition concerning what makes a good site great and a bad site terrible.  Given the complication inherent in getting a backcountry permit, I think standards should be kept high.

The best

Boulder Pass is the best backcountry site in Glacier; which is quite the softball statement, because it is incontrovertible.  No other on trail place, and only a few off trail, possess the combination of alpine moonscape, good water, just enough vegetative cover, and massive views.  Boulder also has the best latrine in the park (:57 in the following video).  It defines what a good campsite is.

While I rank Hole in the Wall second to Boulder, there is an argument to be made for their reversal.  What it lacks in 360 views it makes up in the insane ambiance of 10 cascades tumbling by your camp.  It has a briefer season than Boulder, as it takes longer to melt out, but a few more tent spaces.  Securing a night at either is difficult.

R0020795Camp is just left of center, below the three falls.

Cosley Lake is the best non-alpine backcountry site in Glacier.  The food prep area lacks shade, and the approach spur off the main trail is brushy and doesn’t promise much, but the four tent sites are each layed just far enough back from the lake to provide good relief from the occasionally punishing winds, and each has a little access trail to what is in essence a bit of private gravel beach, and the views up valley cannot be improved upon.  Last June we spent hours one evening watching a sow Griz and cubs feed along the opposite shore.  Everything which sets Glacier apart is at Cosley Lake on display in one simple sweep.

R0023697

It is worth noting that all of these top three, along with several runner up sites (Lake Francis, Glens Head, Stoney Indian Lake), are along the northern traverse, the best 50 mile trail hike in the park, between Kintla Lake and Chief Mountain.  The shuttle necessary for this hike is monstrous, and the snow crossings between Boulder and Hole often off putting, but the efforts are worth it.  I recommend west to east.

The worst

Browns Pass is the worst backcountry site in Glacier, mostly because it should be much better than it is.  Being at a pass would lead a reasonable person to assume you’d get views from camp, at least part of camp, but Browns does no such thing.  The pass is just broad enough, and the trees just thick enough, to restrict any good views and create a heinous mid-altitude skeeter island.  Add to all of that a water source that tends to dry up as the summer wears on and you have all of the expectation and none of the virtue.  Move the site 300 meters west, or 200 meters north, or down to Thunderbird Pond and things would be much, much better.

IMG_6591Typical mid-summer scene at Browns Pass.

Mokowanis Junction is another site that does not use it’s resources properly, and therefore gets rhetorically whacked.  It’s easy to relegate all the forested all the heavily forested sites in Glacier to the bottom of the list, but as Moky Junction shows that is not fair.  The old growth pine in this and similar parts of Glacier is beautiful, and provides welcome shelter from severe weather.  The westernmost site is here particularly lovely, set under a tree which is probably decades older than the park itself.  The problem is that Moky is not close enough to the numerous clear, perfect streams and instead relies on a distance and murky seep.  This site would have also benefited from being deeper in the forest, and a bit further from the meadow of extensive, bug-breeding and condensation enhancing undergrowth.

IMG_6603Thimbleberry and Cow Parsnip; good for food, not good to sleep near.

Elizabeth Lake Foot is third on my list of worst backcountry sites in Glacier, and not because it lacks good views or water (it excels in both), or because it lacks other interest (the rope hang was replaced with metals lockers because of the robust flying squirrel population).  Lizzy Lake is a convenient and beautiful byway that gets tons of traffic for very good reason, but is on my list of places I simply won’t stay at because it receives far too much bear traffic.  The Many Glacier valley system, to the south, has no true backcountry sites because of wildlife issues, and I think that if it is to exist at all Liz lake ought to be 500 yards back down the trail along the Belly River, and not with tent pads and a food prep area 30 feet from a trail that is used by Grizzlies on such a frequent basis.

The unsung

There are an effectively endless number of secrets to be found in Glacier, undesignated permits being one of the least secret.  That is correct, if you have a good enough case to make you can wherever you want.  And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

IMG_1356

IMG_6968

There are some outstanding designated sites that get little traffic, too.  Coal Creek is in the middle of a slowly regrowing burn and for the next decade or so should enjoy superlative views of a few of the steepest peaks in the park.  Access across the Middle Fork can be problematic if you don’t have a boat, but the hike SE through Muir Creek to Park Creek is one of the great hidden forest showcases.  Harrison Lake is another personal favorite, for reasons (trees, history, grown-in trails) few others will understand and hardly anyone will agree with.  During the summer Lake McDonald doesn’t provide much of a backcountry experience, being across the lake from the road and lodge, but is quite pretty and makes a fun boat-to outing.  Calling Cobalt Lake under the radar is a bit of a stretch, but the Two Medicine area and Two Med pass in particular deserve more attention than they get.

That is all.

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11 thoughts on “The best, the worst, and the unsung backcountry sites of Glacier NP

  1. I literally had a buck deer lick the entirety of my quilt from top to bottom at that damn Brown’s Pass camp while I had it laid out under my tarp and was cooking dinner. Then that night he continued to try and lick it – – while I was STILL IN IT! I had to set up a barrier of branches around my tarp to keep that sumbitch away from me.

  2. Hey Sam, I’ve been looking for a post like this for the past 6 months while I researched backcountry camping in Glacier. Any thoughts on FIF, ELL, MOR, GRN, POI, CRA, or GUN? Unfortunately, we didn’t get advance reservations and want to try and hit a few overnights (so 2 day/1 night hikes). We won’t have time to make it to the North Fork, and it seems like we’re going to have to be very flexible with our site choices. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

    1. Fifty Mountain is a superlative campsite; certainly top five. It didn’t make the top three because it has seven tent pads and is in somewhat problematic Griz habitat. Ellen Wilson is also top five material.

      Poia and Gunsite are both very nice lake sites, nothing but the most rigorous snobbery would have much bad to say about them. Granite isn’t bad either, but has lots of problem deer and doesn’t put its location to best use. I’ve never been to Cracker Lake but have been told it is excellent.

      For walk ins get to the office super early and have 4-5 separate plans based on the previous nights walk in status update. If you can do 15+ miles per day you should have plenty of options.

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